Fast Company

Are You Building Your Career Pyramid?

I had the complete joy this past Sunday of having absolutely nothing to do. It was pouring rain, SeamlessWeb delivered bagels and coffee directly to my door, and my husband and his best friend had plans to watch nonstop football.

So, I camped out upstairs in our apartment -- computer turned off! -- and read pretty much the entire Sunday New York Times cover-to-cover. In addition to reading Bono’s op-ed, a review of Gail Collins’ new book about women and, as always, the wedding announcements (“the sports pages for women”), I came across an interview with Carol Bartz, the CEO of Yahoo.

In the interview, Bartz is asked to share her best career advice. She says the following:

“You need to build your career not as a ladder, but as a pyramid. You need to have a base of experience because it’s a much more stable structure. And so that involves taking lateral moves. And it involves getting out of your comfort zone.”

It’s no secret that the concept of a career ladder, in which you rise up each rung in a direct (and precarious) upward trajectory, is no longer relevant to the realities of today’s work world. I was excited when, a few years ago, Deloitte’s Cathy Benko and Anne C. Weisberg, authors of Mass Career Customization, coined an alternative term “career lattice.” They defined this as a career that exists as “an undulating journey of climbs and lateral moves.”

I like the lattice image, especially in a corporate context as Benko and Weisberg designed it, but for career paths in general I love the pyramid analogy. It suggests that, in the early years of one’s career especially, your job is to build a foundation that will be the base for future career decisions and accomplishments. It suggests that a career is something from which you can’t “fall off” or “fall through the cracks.” It connotes stability and strength.

Furthermore, a pyramid can be custom built to any specifications. The current Wikipedia entry on pyramids notes, “The base of a pyramid can be trilateral, quadrilateral, or any polygon shape, meaning that a pyramid has at least four faces.” (Plus, if you envision a pyramid that looks more like a progression of steps, you can also incorporate the helpful concept of "leveling up," which Chris Brogan wrote about recently.)

It’s no secret that many of us have various “faces” at any given point in our careers. I’m thinking of a newly entrepreneurial friend whose pyramid “base” is her seven years at a law firm learning the basics of negotiation and communication. Or my husband, whose base includes eight years in magazine advertising sales that has now grown into a role as VP of sales for a digital media company. Or my own career pyramid, that started with a base of writing and speaking experience and has grown into a business with a variety of “faces.”

What do you think of the idea of career pyramids? Do you think this is a helpful analogy for the “shape” of 21st Century careers? Please share in the Comments!

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2 Comments

  • Lindsey Pollak

    @Alice - Thank you for the comment. I absolutely agree that volunteer and nonprofit board experience are incredibly valuable parts of one's career "foundation." In fact, I just joined a nonprofit board myself and I'm finding it incredibly valuable.

    Lindsey

  • Alice Korngold

    Lindsey, the pyramid image is great! As you know from your excellent book "Getting from College to Career") and our conversations, I would include volunteer and nonprofit board experiences as valuable professional development opportunities as well--part of the pyramid. See "Amassing Your Governance Capital" here. http://bit.ly/vtKOF